Tuesday 15 October 2019

Art dealers get tough as €61m Chinese vase goes unpaid

Scott Reyburn

The most expensive Chinese work of art at auction is still not paid for, more than a year after it was bid to £51.6m (€61.4m).

The elaborately decorated Qing-dynasty porcelain vase had been found in a routine house clearance and was included in a sale of antiques on November 11, 2010, by Bainbridges of west London.

Its price was more than 50 times the pre-sale estimate and the auction house ceased to comment after several months had passed without payment.

Payment is still awaited, a dealer with knowledge of the matter said. Though some money has changed hands, it doesn't look as if settlement is imminent, he said.

The record price was the most spectacular in recent sales that saw Asian clients bid multiples of the estimates for rare objects made for Chinese emperors. Bidding hasn't always been translated into final payment in an international trade that is now valued at $10bn (€7.7bn).

Auctioneer Peter Bainbridge, who broke his hammer as the record was set, wasn't prepared to publicly comment when visited in his West Ruislip auction rooms.

"I've signed a confidentiality clause with the buyer," said Mr Bainbridge. He would not confirm that the successful bidder on the vase had failed to settle the bill, nor that some money had changed hands.

"Once you accept a part-payment, your hands are tied," said the London dealer John Berwald.

"Perhaps they should have just cancelled the deal and re-offered the vase in Hong Kong. I believe it's 100pc genuine. Second time around, it could be worth at least £20m (€24m)."

The piece, thought to be associated with the Qianlong Emperor, went to an agent in the room bidding on behalf of a Chinese collector.

The vase featured a pierced 'reticulated' body painted in a famille rose palette and was discovered in the London suburb of Pinner.

It was owned by a retired solicitor, Tony Johnson, and his mother Gene. Its earlier history is unknown.

The reluctance of Bainbridges' Chinese buyer to settle the record-breaking bill has led other auction houses to ask for deposits on high-value works at Asian art sales.

Paris-based Asian-art specialist Pierre Ansas required clients to leave a €200,000 deposit to bid on a Qianlong-period Imperial scroll painting and seal offered at auctions in Toulouse, France, on March 26.

The scroll was bid to a record €22.1m and the seal to €12.4m, both by Chinese clients.

While the invoice for the scroll was settled within three months, only €2.2m has so far been paid for the seal, Ansas said in a interview.

"The buyer has until January 10 to pay the rest," said Ansas. "Otherwise we will re-offer the seal in March. The valuation will be lower then --maybe €5m or €6m -- and the owners will sue for the difference between the prices."

In the event of the first buyer defaulting, the partial payment of €2.2m will not be returned, said Ansas.

The successful bidder in Toulouse was a Hong Kong dealer representing a Chinese collector.

"He said he couldn't pay because his client has lost a lot of money in China," said Ansas.

"The economy isn't so good now. It's a tough situation and I don't see how we're going to solve these non-payment problems. The market has been very speculative."

The difficulties of dealing with Asian clients are summed up by an anonymous poem currently circulating in the trade:

The Chinese bid with verve and skill

And hence rack up a mighty bill.

'The money's coming soon,' they cry

But oh, my friend, they lie, they lie.


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